OTTAWA - Canadian Embassy staff in Ethiopia's capital city took part in emergency-response training just weeks ago, two visiting senators said Tuesday as they described watching consular officials spring into action in the aftermath of this weekend's deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash.
The timing of the training proved prescient Sunday after Nairobi-bound Flight 302 plowed into the desert outside the capital city of Addis Ababa, killing all 157 passengers and crew on board, including 18 Canadians.
The senators — Conservative Raynell Andreychuk and Liberal Jim Munson — are on a trip through Africa as part of a cross-party group of parliamentarians that arrived in Addis Ababa less than two hours before the crash. Some of the passengers on their flight were ultimately bound for Nairobi — a popular flight the parliamentary association also took last year.
The two veteran politicians described an embassy that found itself grieving a loss that has reverberated around the country even as they worked around the clock to find out more about the Canadians who were on board the ill-fated flight.
"The strain on the mission, I know what it's like," said Andreychuk, a former ambassador. "I had car accidents, I didn't have a plane crash, but your immediate response is to service the Canadians involved and that means those who perish, but also the families."
The parliamentary association touched down in the capital about 90 minutes before the crash, Munson said in a telephone interview.
"There were people on the plane that I talked to that were going to Nairobi," he said.
"You can't help but stop and think and reflect upon the excitement and the anticipation of those who were coming either to a conference or to go on a safari in Kenya and not make it. It's heartbreaking."
Andreychuk said embassy staff first had to figure out who was on the plane. That meant working with airport authorities, the airline and the Ethiopian government to get information and pass it around the embassy and back to headquarters in Ottawa, which Andreychuk said is sending additional staff to help.
Munson said staff were also going to the crash site and taking calls from families, including some who may want to get to Addis Ababa quickly.
On Monday morning, the parliamentary group was scheduled to have a briefing at the embassy. Instead there was a small ceremony and moment of silence outside the embassy building, where everyone expressed their grief.
Since the crash, a sombre mood has settled over the trip. All of the association's meetings with Ethiopian counterparts and civil society groups have begun with moments of silence, and Canada's embassy has prepared a condolence book that visitors will be able to sign throughout the week.
Andreychuk, who represents Saskatchewan in the upper chamber on Parliament Hill, likened the impact in Ethiopia and on the Canadian delegation there to the bus crash almost one year ago involving the Humboldt Broncos that killed 16 people, including 10 players, and injured 13 more.
"It's like a family loss. You can read it in newspapers, you can see it on television, you can get a tweet, but to have been on ground, we're living it in a way that is unimaginable," she said.
"It's like Humboldt is on my doorstep and so we still live it today. I think this one will be the same."
The Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed six minutes after takeoff Sunday morning, triggering worldwide apprehension about the aircraft, which was also involved in a deadly crash in Indonesia less than five months ago, when Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea 12 minutes after departing the airport in Jakarta. The October 2018 crash killed all 189 passengers and crew on board.
Since Sunday, a growing number of countries have grounded the plane, including China, Germany and the United Kingdom. The U.S. and Canada have not followed suit, citing a lack of information about what caused the latest incident.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with his Kenyan counterpart about the disaster, which also claimed the life of 32 Kenyans. Trudeau and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta traded condolences to friends and families of the victims, and the prime minister offered additional Canadian support for the ongoing investigation, officials said.
The brief readout of the call from Trudeau's office said the two agreed to share information on the investigation going forward.